Concert Review: Wadada Leo Smith – Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival

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Wadada Leo Smith has lived and breathed the message of Suoni Per Il Popolo from the moment he began recording music.  His risk taking, forward thinking approach to composition has kept him fresh and new for decades and his ability to embed meaning within avant-garde sound is nearly unmatchable making him the ideal choice to open this year’s festival.  Seeing Wadada Leo Smith is stepping into a stream of consciousness.  From the moment the music begins to the end of the performance the room is fully under the control of Smith.  The musicians surrounding him avidly watch his hands flail around, directing the spirit of the music through the appropriate developments.  The crowd is blown away both by Smith’s unbelievable trumpet playing power and his stunning ability to play with tension in slower moving moments.  Smith’s spirit envelops all who bear witness, bringing them to specific events in his life and teaching lessons of perseverance and strength.

One of the highlights of this particular night was the use of a backdrop, courtesy of visual artist Jesse Gilbert.  With each musician’s stand equipped with cameras, the backdrop was able to combine abstract imagery with live footage of the Golden Quartet members playing.  Particularly climactic moments were made more intense with the use of powerful photographs from various historical moments.  During Smith’s piece “Emmett Till – Defiant, Fearless,” a picture of Till himself, a picture that became one of the faces of the civil rights movement, emerged from the Golden Quartet’s abstraction:

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(Picture of Emmett Till taken by Mamie Till Bradley)

In a talk with McGill Professor Eric Lewis the day following his performance, Smith detailed his inspiration for the piece, specifically mentioning the witness report that Till showed no fear when faced with his death by beating.  The strength in Till’s gaze in the above picture is perfectly represented by the tone of Smith’s soundscape and the culmination of these two elements resulted in a statement of indescribable power.  In another instance, Smith’s music reached a slow groove state during the piece “September 11th, 2001- A Memorial.”  In this moment, a video of one of the twin towers burning emerged from dust, obtaining a tone of somber resilience.  Again, Smith expertly captures the feeling of this moment in history.

These images were cohesively incorporated into the evening as they perfectly depicted the progression of the sounds involved.  Smith’s pieces begin slowly, entirely absent of rhythmic specificity.  At this point, the images shown are merely abstract lines and shapes floating in space.  These spacey beginnings remain powerful as Smith’s understanding of tension keeps the audience at his feet, heavily anticipating his next move.  As the pieces move forward, more eventful developments ensue.  Drummer Pheeroan akLaff plays an especially key role in the energy on stage.  His active playing all around his kit complements every bump and valley in each melodic line.  Visually, the increase in percussive activity is represented by more vivid imagery.  The abstract lines become more plentiful with live footage of the Golden Quartet members playing coming in bits and pieces.  Even when simply comprised of people playing instruments, live concerts always have some aspect of spectacle.  Seeing the action of musicians creating adds to the artistry of the sounds they are making.  By emphasizing the agency of the musicians involved in his photographic backdrop, Jesse Gilbert successfully represented the connections between Smith’s sounds and the historical context he has placed himself in.

Although Smith is a big composer, his conducting and score writing strategies do not involve complete roadmaps and directions, rather, sketches of musical ideas.  Certain moments indicated that Smith himself was the sole decider of musical direction and development.  Occasionally, the Golden Quartet seemed content to take a digression in energy or continue a somewhat stagnant meter.  During these moments, Smith would surprise the whole room with a huge, sweeping hand motion.  In one instance, the tempo reached a driving speed leading into Smith’s trumpet solo.  Just before beginning, Smith suddenly cut off the whole ensemble, making the decision to play his solo unaccompanied.  This decision was supported by the trumpet solo that followed as Smith maintained the spirit of the music with fiery melodies and quick-hitting rhythmic ideas.  When the ensemble returned, the impact of their powerful playing was made even more intense.  In some of the quieter instances, Smith journeyed around the floor to achieve intimacy with his fellow players.  Towards the end of the night, Smith placed himself right next to his pianist Anthony Davis. The conversational energy provided between these two players provided a nice contrast from the full throttle moments from all four members.

The hour long performance had a presence to it.  From the moment the Golden Quartet began, an attention grabbing spirit encompassed the whole room leading into a standing ovation from the audience.

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A review of this night at Sala Rosa would be incomplete without a mention of the incredible opening act put together by the Howl arts collective.  The piece was called Intérro? and it was dedicated to real life stories of people who have been harassed at border security across the world.  Bits and pieces of these stories were strung together poetically by Kaie Kellough and Tanya Evanson.  Meanwhile, sound-artist Jason Sharp and visual artist Kevin Lo added to the weight of the piece with high intensity manifestations of the suggested theme.  Rhetorically, the piece aimed to unearth the racist undertones of seemingly innocent questions asked of people in airports and border crossings across the world.  Quiet beginnings moved into more epic moments capturing the anxiety cause by constant questioning and harassment based on unrealistic fears of terrorism or violence.

Dancing on the line of avant-garde sound and spoken word poetry, the piece began with textural clicking from Sharp’s saxophone and whispering from Kellough.  As the collage of non-descript sound settled into ambiance, Evanson made her first vocalization uttering questions along the lines of what are you, why are you here, and where do you come from?  Space followed Evanson’s words before Kellough returned to utter a series of answers.  As the piece moved on certain lyrical motives became clear.  Kellough consistently mentioned Tel Aviv, which alluded to the Middle East.  Evanson continued her line of questioning constantly asking if the person she was talking to knew what they were doing was illegal.  Towards the end of the piece, the lyrical ideas changed a bit, the words said by Kellough and Evanson becoming more similar.  The phrase “embarrassed at the airport” bounced between each of their voices as well as the word “irrational.”

By highlighting specific words and ideas the piece made an argument through nuanced tension.  The more often certain questions were asked and words were said, the more weight they held.  Although border questioning advertises itself as a necessary precaution, it borders on the dehumanizing as people are called out based on where they come from or irrationally bombarded for a much longer period of time then necessary.  Also, the piece’s ability to create poetry out of real life situations is indicative of the agency of art in life.  Many times art is used as a metaphor for the real world, but in this case the piece operated almost in a journalistic way.  Situations were reported on in a way that depicted the emotional distress they caused.

Throughout the set, the increasing intensity between Kellough and Evanson was matched by Sharp’s soundscape and the Lo’s visual backdrop.  Sharp’s electronic set-up is very large giving him access to many different sound conceptions.  Beginning with an introduction of a slow meter, Sharp used his bass saxophone tonality to operate as a kick drum.  As the piece developed distorted melodies began to accompany the spoken word vocal work.  Through the use of sustain pedals and looping these distorted melodies melted into a wall of white noise.  As the white noise grew, more rhythmic ideas came of the vocal delivery making for a punching sound aesthetic.

The night served as a fantastic example of music as a form of activism and social awareness.  At all moments there was a clear purpose to the spectacle beyond the creation of music for the sake of art.  As a form of expression, Art can hold a meaning and present it sometimes more effectively than a formally written lesson or article.  Out of all the festivals in Montreal, Suoni Per Il Popolo may understand this possibility the most and their opening night with Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet and Howl Arts Collective’s Intérro? was a truly magnificent success.

-Review by Donovan Burtan